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Journal - 02-Apr-2001, Monday, Viñales - Pinar del Rio - María la Gorda, Cuba
(Trip: Cuba)

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Click for larger image! Guanahacabibes Reserve. Keywords: backpack,camp,camping,tent,Cuba,pinar del rio,vinales,maria la gorda,dive,diving,coral,beach,coast,park,tabaco,tobacco,tourist,camp,travel
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Click for larger image! María la Gorda. Keywords: backpack,camp,camping,tent,Cuba,pinar del rio,vinales,maria la gorda,dive,diving,coral,beach,coast,park,tabaco,tobacco,tourist,camp,travel
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Guanahacabibes Reserve
María la Gorda
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Click for larger image! Paradise Found. Keywords: backpack,camp,camping,tent,Cuba,pinar del rio,vinales,maria la gorda,dive,diving,coral,beach,coast,park,tabaco,tobacco,tourist,camp,travel
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Click for larger image! Sigh.... Keywords: backpack,camp,camping,tent,Cuba,pinar del rio,vinales,maria la gorda,dive,diving,coral,beach,coast,park,tabaco,tobacco,tourist,camp,travel
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Paradise Found
Sigh...
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Time to move on. Bags are packed and before breakfast we're on the road to the nearest city, province capital Pinar del Rio. We're giving a lift to a pair of women who introduced themselves as we were leaving. There seems to be an informal information network of who's going where - or maybe they just saw us loading up the car and hung around.

One of the women works collecting resin from pine trees. She describes what sounds like a painfully manual process of making a hole in the side of a tree and placing a bucket below the hole to collect the resin. The woman talks pretty much non-stop for the car trip. She urges us to visit her home town by the beach where we can enjoy inexpensive "lango'ta" (lobster). She warns of con-men selling fake cigars and talks about how Cubans can be jailed for bothering tourists.

When we arrive, an hour later, the streets of Pinar del Rio are choc-a-bloc with people. There are few cars on the roads and we crawl along, trying to avoid bumping into a bicycle or pedestrian. There are some official signs to 'Hotel Pinar del Rio', and this seems like a good place to start our enquiries for a place to withdraw cash.

The hotel directs us to a bank in the town center so we drive back into the crowds and park by the side of the road (there doesn't seem to be enough cars to warrant car parks yet). The bank is a normal branch office, like any other in the world, with shiny glass counters, etc. Half the customers are foreigners. There's no problem withdrawing cash.

Now hungry, we go off in search of food. We have to walk around for quite a while before we find anywhere that sells edible products. We pass dirty shop windows that have no more than ten, low value items, laid out with prices. Imagine a blank base adorned with a pair of scissors, adhesive tape, tea towel, etc. Each spaced well apart. It looks more like an art project than a shop window display!

We settle on a fast food place to eat. In fact it's the only place we find that might be called a restaurant. Despite its name, "El Rapido", we have to wait about 15 minutes before we're served (and we were second in the line!). We breakfast on sandwiches, yogurt, and biscuits.

Somewhere along the way, we've decided to head west and check out the supposed natural beauty that awaits us. We're a bit dubious about the guide book descriptions, after our experience with Soroa 'waterfall' (read 'trickle'), but it seems our best bet. If it's no good we can always turn around.

The next challenge is to try and find the road out of town. We head out past the hotel and find the start of the highway. Unfortunately it's the start of the highway to Havana, in the opposite direction to where we want to go. One U-turn later we're heading back towards the town center. As we pass the hotel a young man flags us down and asks for a lift.

Our passenger asks us what we think about revolution. We opine that it has brought some benefits and ask his own opinion. He replies that he's a revolutionary. He says that most young Cubans are socialists, rather than communists, and that he doesn't have anything against the United States. We drop him off in the town center, about a kilometer from the hotel. He points us to a gas station which, as luck would have it, is on the road west out of town.

Leaving urbanization behind we are soon in farmland again. We pass a lot of tobacco fields, all on a relatively small scale. Many people are walking along the road, carrying umbrellas to protect against the harsh sun. Some of them ask for rides and we start picking people up whenever we have space.

A sign in front of a field says "Agriculture - Quality and Efficiency!". I'd love to take a photo of the sign with a horse and cart trundling below it. I'm sure I wouldn't have too wait long!

Some examples of local public transport are seen: Cattle trucks filled with standing passengers, all squashed together like sardines. It looks pretty uncomfortable in the midday heat. A glance at the passengers' facial expressions confirms this.

At one point a man by the side of the road waves his finger as if to say the road is closed. There isn't any evidence of this so we continue on. The road is fine. We figure he was trying to get us to stop so he could sell us something.

Arriving at the first town on the road, the same thing happens. We're about to make a turn when we see two people shaking their fingers at us. We pass the turn, thinking that maybe there's a diversion further on. There isn't. We turn around and make the turn, ignoring the protests of the youths. The road is fine. Mental note. Ignore people that shake their fingers at us.

We drive for a couple of hours through more peaceful farmland dotted with odd towns and communities. We arrive at an unsigned T-junction and have to decide which turn to make. There is a man standing at the junction so we call him over to ask directions.

The next town on the map is "La Fe", so we ask for this. The man is simply dressed and, despite the sun, wears no hat. In response to our question, he just points down, indicating we've arrived at the grand metropolis La Fe. After a quick revision of the map, we ask for the next town. The man points left. We ask if he's going there and wants a lift. He nods shyly and gets in.

The next town is a bit bigger and looks like it might even have a shop. We drop off our passenger and he gives us directions to María la Gorda - an international diving center, according to the guide, and close to another biosphere reserve we're planning to check out. It's just as well our friend gave us directions, as there isn't a single sign for the turn off.

More rural emptiness and far fewer people. We give a lift to three boys. Monica asks if they had school today. No. That's about the extent of our conversation. They don't seem comfortable talking with strange foreigners.

We drop the boys off at what looks like a block of flats in the middle of a field. Obviously the result of some government housing project. Another boy, in school uniform, jumps in. The contrast between the other boys and this one is like night and day. He immediately strikes up chatty conversation with us. After about two sentences he identifies us as Mexicans - almost the first person in Cuba to do so!

The boy tells us he's a scout leader and gives us some camping tips. Apparently it's possible to camp at María la Gorda but nowhere else nearby. That's good to know.

He spots my Palm electronic organizer on the dashboard and asks what it is. I spend a few minutes showing it too him. He asks how much it costs. We ask if they're available in Cuba. He shakes his head, almost sadly.

I ask the boy if Cubans can travel freely. He explains Cubans can only travel if they have relatives in another country and receive an invitation to visit. He has no idea why this rule exists; it seems puzzling to him.

We drop the boy off at an isolated house. A sign outside offers fresh fruit.

The road has deteriorated badly, with the appearance of more potholes than pavement! The tiny wheels of the car handle it surprisingly well but our speed is reduced to around 60 kph. Fairly dense forest lines both sides of the road. An occasional cow is spotted in the shade of the trees.

The forest opens into a large clearing dotted with concrete buildings. It seems like we've reached the end of the road. A faded sign announces the Guanahacabibes biosphere reserve station.

Inside, the office is pretty bare, with a single desk and some photos on the wall. The sole offering is a guided tour to a cave. The ranger says it's quite interesting at the moment as there are lot of migratory birds in the forest. He tells me that they're in the process of opening the reserve to more tourism, and that he's been to Mexico and Costa Rica to see how they manage parks there. Another ranger very helpfully recommend a beach where we can camp. Maybe tomorrow we'll do the tour.

Driving on, we find the road does continue around a sharp bend we couldn't see before. The coast is suddenly visible as a sweeping arc of white sand, outlining a deep blue sea. It looks wonderful.

Monica is not at all keen on camping on a deserted beach - especially as we don't have much food or water. Good point. Then we remember that further on down this road is María la Gorda, the 'International Diving Center'. Surely they'll have a shop there?

We drive along the coast for about twenty minutes before seeing a nice new sign for María la Gorda. Shortly afterwards the road ends and we enter the gates of a small leisure complex - the only infrastructure in sight.

There's a bar, hotel, shop, beach, and a few yachts moored. Everything is smart and well maintained. It feels like an exclusive resort for the yacht owning set. A dive shop offers tours and rents equipment. The palm trees on the beach have hammocks swung between them.

The rooms at María la Gorda are $40 a night, which Monica considers a bargain for this Caribbean paradise. We strike a deal together: If can't find a nice place to pitch the tent we'll stay in the hotel. The place is almost deserted - it's probably off season.

We drive out, back along the coast, scanning for a good camping spot. Trees and bush line the road, forming a barrier to the beach. Monica spots a sand track leading into the trees. Driving off the road, we stumble on a small clearing that's obviously been used many times for camping.

There is enough space to park the car and pitch the tent. The trees and vegetation will provide shade and hide us from the road. On the other side, not six meters away, is the beach. A couple of small, striped, lizards dart around as we check the site out.

The view out to sea is magnificent - clear blue-turquoise water gently swells up against a narrow coral reef, which acts like a wall between the beach and the sea. All around are huge coral skeletons - white, textured, balls, fans, tubes. Monica loves the place.

Sitting on top of the exposed coral reef, there is about a meter of crystal clear water above the sandy bottom. It couldn't be more inviting. A large fish swims by. A few minutes later, a school of brightly colored fish appear. The beach is deserted as far as the eye can see in both directions - almost like our own, private, island.

We agree to camp here, and so return to María la Gorda to stock up on supplies. Lured by the deck chairs, we buy some drinks and chill out on the beach, reclining under the coconut laden palms. About four other couples are doing the same thing.

The restaurant is quite expensive - a $15 buffet. We buy what's edible in the shop instead. Also pretty expensive. A big bag of potato chips costs over $3.

Pulling into our unclaimed campsite, we crest the bank to see two girls swimming. One of them is topless. A car is parked in our place. We're not sure what to do, so reverse away. The car beeps at us. It's not clear what they're trying to say but they start to move out of the parking space and drive away, leaving the girls. Strange. Maybe they were just spying on the girls?

Not wanting to intrude, we drive on to another parking place, further down the beach. An old van is parked there. It seems to belong to some locals who are fishing on the beach. We park the car and walk down to the beach. After exchanging greetings with the snorkel-fishers, we sit on the rocks and eat our dinner.

The sun starts to set. We can see the girls walking on the beach a few hundred meters away. Presumably they're locals and on their way home. Once the sun has dropped below the horizon, we drive back to our original site. It's now deserted.

We pitch the tent in the twilight and are just in the process of making it homely when we hear voices. We carry on arranging the tent. A few minutes later, Monica walks back to the car (parked about ten meters away behind some trees). In the darkness I hear her strike up conversation. The chatting goes on for a few minutes before I wander over.

There are two girls talking to Monica. They look about sixteen. They say their boyfriends have left them on the beach but should be coming back soon. They're the same girls we saw swimming earlier. The sky is now completely black but the bright moonlight illuminates the ground and casts long shadows.

The girls have been left without shoes and are worried about getting back to their parents. They live in Sandino, a small town about 30 km away. I wonder if their parents know they came with their 'boyfriends'. They look very young.

As we stand around we're attacked by small midge-like insects. Monica dishes out repellent in defense. It's past nine o'clock and there's no sign of the boyfriends. Apparently they went to María la Gorda for food because the girls were hungry. They were driving the car that was parked here earlier.

Not wanting to leave the girls alone, we offer to take them to María la Gorda. They gratefully accept, saying how embarrassed they are. We don't pass any cars on the road.

When we pull into the car park at María la Gorda, one of the girls recognizes a man standing beside a car. He seems to be in his forties. That can't be her boyfriend surely? The girl gets out of the car and walks over to him, calling "My love!". The man doesn't seem to acknowledge her until she reaches up and kisses him. Monica and I feel sick. The girls hinted that he had a wife as well.

On the drive back Monica rants about how stupid the girls her and how horrible the old men are to be taking advantage of them. I'm inclined to agree.

When we get back to the tent, the site is truly deserted. We climb inside and lie down to sleep. Hot, hot, hot. This isn't going to work. I get out to wet a towel in the sea for my body cooling trick.

There is a little bay in the rocks, and a good place to access the sea water. I clamber on the rocks till I can reach down and wet the towel. One of my legs hangs freely for balance.

As I'm wetting the towel, a swell rolls in, raising the water level slightly. Just enough to reach my free foot. It feels deliciously cool. As the wave rolls back out, it takes my flip flop with it. Ahhh! Luckily the flip flop floats. Okay, quick thinking required. The flip flop is drifting out to sea.

I run along the edge of the rocky bay to try and catch the flip flop as it passes. I can't reach. I swing the towel out to try and trap it. To my amazement, the towel droops perfectly over the flip flop, effectively harnessing it. Then I realize that the other end of the towel is no longer in my hand. Great now I have a towel riding out to sea on a flip flop!

There doesn't seem to be any option now but to dive in after my runaway belongings. The water feels slightly cooler than lukewarm - not at all unpleasant. Standing on the sandy bottom, the water comes up to my chest. The light from the moon is amazingly bright - I can see my body in the water right down to the toes.

Flip flop rescued, I head back to the tent. What can Monica be thinking? I only went to wet a towel!

At the tent Monica isn't too concerned. I change into dry underwear and climb inside. The sea water evaporating from our bodies helps to cool us down. We turn on the torch to make sure no biting insects are inside.

Whoops, it seems a number of flying specks gate-crashed when I got back in the tent. They hurt like hell when they bite so we set about exterminating the intruders. This takes a lot longer than expected as it always seems there's "just one more", when we spot another flying past. One-by-one, they're squashed unceremoniously against the wall of the tent. Some spill red blood, proving their guilt.

We don't sleep very well. There's the bright moonlight, the heat of the air, and the discomfort of sleeping on a slight incline.

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Cuba - Rotorua, New Zealand - Christ Church, Dublin - Monument Valley, Arizona - Monte Albán, Oaxaca, Mexico - Staffa, Scotland - Huamantla, Tlaxcala, Mexico - Costa Rica - Tule Tree, Oaxaca, Mexico - Fiesta, Mexico City - Making Lacquer, Olinalá, Mexico - Talavera Ceramics, Puebla, Mexico - Mata Ortiz Pottery, Mexico - Lebanon
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